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PrimaryEnglishThe Arts

4 fantastic drama and story writing activities for developing characters

From annoying words and mannerisms to finding out what's in someone's bag, these innovative ideas are great for delving deep into characters' backstories…

Leanne Welsh
by Leanne Welsh
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At the recent NATE conference I attended a number of excellent workshops that will help me to create interesting and engaging lessons for the pupils in my class. I am grateful that I had the opportunity to meet so many inspiring people who shared their ideas and practice which I can now adapt for my pupils.

One of the workshops that blew me away was Kat Burr’s All work and no play? Introducing new views and creative ways into plays. In this workshop we gained fascinating insight into ways that we can help pupils to develop characters in plays. Although, the ideas were not strictly limited to plays and could be a worthwhile starting point for creative writing and folio work.

What’s in my Bag?

One of the first tasks that Kat introduced us to was ‘What’s in my Bag?’ Pupils choose two items from their bag and the rest of the group/class have to work out what the persons ‘holes’ (flaws) might be because of the items.

I would say it is important to tell the pupils to think about the person with the items as a character rather than as themselves, so that no feelings get hurt in the process!

For example if I had a small mirror in my bag, my flaw, as a character, might be that I care too much about my appearance and what people think of me. This immediately allows the pupils to start to develop a character in their own head and what the person might be like.

If you have some pupils in your school that don’t have a bag or you might not feel comfortable doing this task, you could use YouTube. There are many videos out there with YouTubers promoting ‘What’s in my bag?’. You could pause it in-between items and ask the pupils to discuss or write down what their flaws might be because of their chosen items. This is also a fantastic task for getting to know a class or letting them get to know you.

Killer Lines

Another task (and probably my favourite) was Killer Lines, where groups of pupils were given a number of lines and had to work out what kind of character would say them.

You could make these lines up or use famous quotes from characters and see if the pupils can work out who is the baddie (we all know they get the best lines). You could even provide images and see if the pupils can match up the line with the character, and give a reason why they think they could say that.

For example if you use the line ‘Long live the king!” some pupils might say Scar because he is desperate to become the king and get rid of his brother.

However, there may be another opportunity for an interesting discussion on ambiguity. Perhaps it depends on the way that a character says a line and the tone they use.

Voice is so important in order to develop an accurate character; we have to hear them speak, right down to the laugh that they use.

This line could have been said by a bunch of servants who are loyal to their ruler, so even the status of the character is vital.

Where is the character in terms of the food chain? Are they a boss or are they a disgruntled ex-employee looking for revenge? So, an important lesson that could come out of this task is that delivery of a line is often more important than the line itself.

Words that Annoy You

Another task that I used from the workshop with my pupils was ‘Words that Annoy You’. I asked the pupils to write down a word on a Post-it that made their blood boil (or, at least, caused them some discomfort) when someone said it. To say they loved it was an understatement.

They were doing this as a group and looking at each other’s saying ‘Ugh, I hate that too! Why do people do that?’

Next I asked them to think about the mannerisms people use that annoy them. If you want a really successful task, you should say things that teachers do (obviously telling them to keep it anonymous) that annoy them.

Each group came away with loads of words and mannerisms and I asked them to explore how they think each of these words would be said, and what the mannerisms would look like. I asked them to think about what kind of character would suit each line. What personality would that character have? How would they interact with other people? How would their voice sound as they said it?

Then, and I think this is really important for character development, I asked them to think about the character’s backstory. What makes this person have this mannerism? Where did the use of a word come from? Did they start to use it when their status changed in society? Do they only use these words or mannerisms with certain people and do they change depending on who they are around? This task really was fascinating, and it was interesting to hear pupils saying ‘Well they only say that to us because we are a pupil, I bet they are different around the Heedie!’

Anonymous comments

The final task, and one that I think is brilliant, is getting the pupils to eavesdrop on a conversation. This could be at break, lunch or on their way home from school.

They should each take an anonymous comment that they find unusual or funny and bring it back to class. They can then explore these comments as a group, perhaps putting them all together to create a short sketch. Pupils could even provide the lines that they think came before, that would follow. It’s another interesting opportunity to explore voice if you get pupils to exchange their comment with someone else.

This was a fantastic and beneficial workshop that I will most certainly use to help pupils develop their characters in creative writing. Pupils often only have an image of a character in their head but it is important to delve into the history of a character in order to explore what their strengths and flaws might be.

Leanne Welsh is an English teacher in Scotland who completed her NQT year last year. You can find her at and follow her on Twitter at @lcatherine91.

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